Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Glimpsing the speed limit of news during Hurricane Sandy

Posted By on 10.30.12 at 01:45 PM

Twitter isnt a truth machine, just ask this shark photo.
  • The Atlantic
  • Neither Twitter nor the Atlantic has yet determined the provenance of this shark photo taken or Photoshopped in New Jersey as of 12:45 PM Tuesday Update They agreed it's fake later on on Tuesday.
I was tweeting from the Reader's #HonestTruth debate last night, but all I could think about was Superstorm Sandy ransacking New York, New Jersey, and the rest of the mid-Atlantic. Like lots of news junkies yesterday, I was keeping up with the latest developments—the cars floating, the subway flooding, the fires burning—with Twitter, the medium that started the Arab Spring, spread word of an airplane water landing in the Hudson, and pushed out every meme you've seen in the last two or three years. Users were back to hear what would happen with the "snoreastercane," and the consensus was that it was the right place to be. One tweeter wrote, "When I want to know what's happening: twitter. When I want to know what's happened: tv." That was retweeted a modest 180 times.

I'm not so sure that was true with Sandy. Even though there were likely a couple of million tweets posted during the storm, new information only bubbled up every ten to 15 minutes or so, with very little big-picture news appearing at all. For example, word in the afternoon was that a crippled crane was dangerously close to crashing down on Carnegie Hall, and with no new developments or images to draw on, that's what the conversation fixated on for a good little while. It was the same with all the other images of creeping water levels and motor vehicles surrendering to water (it actually took hours for the rumor about the flooded subway tunnels to be verified). Then there were the false reports. To my mind, developments paced CNN, but didn't outrun anything you might have learned on TV.

This can be chalked up to a paucity of reporters keeping up with the emergency workers braving the wind and the rain as they checked bridges and tunnels and the exploding transformers. The result was that besides public relations accounts like Mayor Bloomberg's, Twitter became far more effective at conveying fear and uncertainty than the news, if news means information that has been vetted and packaged to provide new and useful information.

One of the storm's most popular social media take-aways is the idea that "Twitter is a truth machine," per Buzzfeed's John Herrman, who says the platform both spreads and "crushes" rumors very quickly:

Twitter's capacity to spread false information is more than canceled out by its savage self-correction. In response to thousands of retweets of erroneous Weather Channel and CNN reports that the New York Stock Exchange had been flooded with "three feet" of water, Twitter users, some reporters and many not, were relentless: photos of the outside of the building, flood-free, were posted. Knowledgeable parties weighed in.

That sounds like a pretty weak apology to me. If we think of Twitter as a part of the news ecosystem, and we do, then Twitter serves as a fact-checker for these rumors, and a slow one at that. It took a long time to roll back what was faked and it's unclear if lots of people still think the New York Stock Exchange was covered in three feet of water. Twitter isn't a good thing or a bad thing, it serves whatever purpose its users want it to, whether that's lying or fact-checking or simply staying on top of whatever story breaks as fast as it breaks.

This isn't to knock Twitter, or its ability to check facts and rein in inaccuracies. It's still totally great; no one should take this as a reason to stop tweeting. But in an age when reporters and citizens alike lean increasingly heavily on Twitter for real-time news updates, we should consider that information often travels very slowly in emergencies. The gaps between updates are the dead air that allow for parody or misinformation to spread via people with itchy Twitter fingers. Beyond waiting for Twitter to debunk bad news or being more active about checking sources, there should be an expectation that without lots of reporters working sources and beating pavement, the news doesn't happen as fast as it can spread online.

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